Many don’t want to talk about it any more, but the Cowboys’ approach to the position in the off-season cycle bordered on passive. Coupled with the four game suspension of the club’s most talented rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence, and 14 game penalty levied toward promising bookend Randy Gregory, the rush the team can muster has been decidedly quarterback friendly. So I grew excited when he wasn’t listed among the inactives.
With each successive defensive snap the Dallas Cowboys took Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, I paused the action to look for his freshly issued number 75.
Why on Earth would I be so interested in the Cowboys debut of a Jacksonville castoff, a 27 year-old defensive end from college football blue-blood Bethune Cookman?
Because Ryan Davis has actual NFL quarterback pelts on the wall of his trophy room. Not a lot, mind you, but with 11 career sacks including 6.5 in 2014, despite never starting in Jacksonville, he is more prolific than either of the Cowboys’ starting defensive ends Sunday night in Tyrone and Jack Crawford. And he did it in far less rush attempts.
Such is the state of the pass rush in Dallas that the arrival of street free agents are heralded with a degree of pageantry and getting home at all is good for a share of the team lead.
While the Cowboys have worked around what amounts to a glaring Achilles’ heel to notch two wins in their first three contests, a rush this anemic is the equivalent of a comeback feature in sports video games. All things are made far easier for clubs looking to snatch victory from the Cowboys’ hands late in games.
Sunday night the team debuted its dumptruck personnel grouping. Not to be confused with the SuperBowl winning, New York Giants’ NASCAR rush package of years gone by, the Cowboys’ starting defensive line now features four players best suited as defensive tackles, Tyrone and Jack Crawford as the ends, and Terrell McClain and rookie Maliek Collins as the tackles.
This is not a master stroke designed to jump start the rush.
Neither of these ends is going to make a living winning against offensive tackles running the arc. Rather it stands as an indictment of the group as a whole, and demoted free agent acquisition and weak-side defensive end Benson Mayowa in particular.
Rather predictably, against a pair of pedestrian Bears tackles, it actually got worse as the Cowboys failed to produce a sack despite leading throughout. With just three sacks in the first three weeks the Cowboys’ front seven have yet to beat an offensive tackle for a sack at all.
Before you cry out the aforementioned Mayowa’s tally against New York, it was the very definition of a coverage sack on a play he was truly and thoroughly stoned on.
The Dallas Cowboys will have to dramatically increase the quality of rushes they are getting or all of their valiant efforts to overcome injuries at key positions all across the offense could go for naught. Losing the club’s three best offensive players in quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Dez Bryant, and left tackle Tyron Smith only increases the risk a “comeback feature” introduces, by eliminating the offense’s greatest conduit to points of their own. For the team to defend what figure to be even thinner leads in a league of razor-like margins of victory, they’ll need to find help inside the building to eliminate the hole in the bottom of their bucket.
Enter the fourth quarter, eight snap Cowboys debut of the 6-foot-2, 260 pound Ryan Davis. Fresh legs notwithstanding, Davis showed among those eight snaps more sound technique and quality rushes than most of his individual line-mates can claim in three games. No, he didn’t get home though he did record a quarterback hit, and no pressures aren’t remotely the value of sacks, but show me the man consistently putting down more quality rushes and you’re showing me the player that will record more sacks over the course of the remainder of the season.
In just eight snaps Davis showed a spin, a speed rush, a bull rush, and a twist stunt inside, all done well. That sort of diversity as a rusher is typically hard earned through Sunday experience and reason for an increased role for this veteran. Based on what we have seen thus far Davis deserves to double his snaps against San Francisco, and I would give him all of the weak side passing down chances possible. He represents possibility in a group that has produced precious little of it when opposing quarterbacks are setting up shop in the pocket.
All hope is not lost. The Cowboys aren’t simply doomed to a fate where they’re devoured in the jaws of the NFC’s quarterbacking dragons. DeMarcus Lawrence returns in week five. Lawerence is coming off back surgery and suspension, but will be counted on immediately. He will walk in to resume his starting role and adding him to Davis, and David Irving, an athletic freak who rushes both inside and out but has yet to turn promise to production, at least offers hope of a rotation that can offer some resistance. Continuing on a pace for 21 sacks isn’t a story that ends any way other than bloodied.
The Cowboys will bear this flaw throughout 2016, and their ability to stem some of the bleeding could determine the ultimate story of this season. In a league continually governed and officiated to favor passing and easy points the pass rush is still the great equalizer and the sack the ultimate expression of defensive dominance and utter offensive failure. We will surely turn over every stone as we scout pass rushing prospects in the 2017 draft class and trust that the Cowboys’ personnel department is doing the same, as that is where the true fix starts. In the interim all eyes will be on the gentlemen Davis, Lawrence, and Irving to see who wants to earn the title of Rushmen.